On India's coast, a plea for jobs

Bill Clinton, the UN's special envoy for tsunami recovery, arrives Friday in south India where more than 6,000 died.

Notions on the street about who Bill Clinton is range from a prince to a curious white man coming to see the tsunami-affected region. For those abroad who are more familiar with the former US president, his visit here as the UN special envoy for tsunami recovery has refocused attention on India's worst-hit district.

Five months on, the major issues tsunami survivors grapple with are the lack of permanent housing and regular employment, elements crucial to rebuilding their lives. Most survivors are still staying in temporary shelters, eking out a living on the money and supplies doled out by the government and other nongovernmental agencies.

NGOs have brought $103 million in relief to the region. And $92 million of construction work is planned - an expected boon for local people looking for work.

But handouts are becoming scarce as the government and aid agencies move on to the recovery phase - a transition that has been hampered by poor planning, say aid workers and residents.

"The government was unprepared for such a disaster. Now, they're learning through trial and error," says R. Somasundaram of Avvai Village Welfare Society, an NGO working in Nagapattinam.

According to Mr. Somasundaram, Indian officials did not plan for the land they would need for permanent homes before they allocated land to temporary shelters, and now there is a land crunch. They also did not plan accurately for the length of the transition period which, he says, is why the subsistence money has stopped even though people's livelihoods have been ensured.

Until May, the government was giving out an allowance of Rs. 1,000, about $23, per month to each affected family.

"We've been living on the tsunami relief that was given," says V. Vasantha, whose farming family owns two acres of agricultural land spoiled by seawater. "We don't know what we're going to do next month."

But, district collector J. Radhakrishnan, the highest government official in Nagapattinam district, says that the end to relief measures is not permanent. "There is a proposal to extend it for another month or two if needed."

He says relief measures have been stopped because the government wants to discourage dependency on handouts. "More and more people have to go back to their livelihoods."

Walter Gillis Peacock, a professor at Texas A&M University who is in Nagapattinam to develop a social vulnerability map, says that what looks like dependency on handouts might simply be the lack of capital resources. He says that people in the US can recover from disasters more quickly because they have insurance, savings, and other reserves. "It's a market-based recovery process. Here [in Nagapattinam] we're dealing with a different set of contingencies," he says.

Fisherman R. Harikrishnan is anxious because he has not been able to take out the boat loan he is eligible for. He now is a work hand on somebody else's boat, but he says he does not have sufficient sea skills because he has always been a boss on land.

Somasundaram says the government reneged on promises to replace fishing boats. "First they said they would replace all the boats," he says. "Then they said they would repair them. Then they said they would allow a subsidy of 35 percent."

The district collector notes however that the fish trade has picked up. "They're doing 50 percent of what they used to do," says Mr. Radhakrishnan.

Farmers, meanwhile, are strapped by the damage to their lands. With 1.3 million hectares of cultivable land, agriculture is the mainstay of the district.

M. Revathi, an agricultural activist, thinks farmers didn't get as much attention as the fishing community because they lost far fewer lives. "But there was twice as much loss to property," she says. Some 5,000 hectares of agricultural land has been spoiled by seawater.

Ranvir Prasad, additional collector in the district, says the government has earmarked $287 worth of materials and reclamation work per hectare of agricultural land spoiled by the tsunami.

"People came and took soil samples. They said the soil was saline, but they haven't done anything yet," says S. Subbulakshmi, a farmer's wife. According to her, the yields are bad for the time and money invested because the soil is no longer fertile. "We planted cucumber, but the crop isn't good," she says.

Her family, however, will plant rice in the coming monsoon season to try their luck. "We would have preferred for the government to have helped with our land than to give us handouts. Our land is what we can live on forever," she says.

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